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The Japanese Table / The joy of serving dishes with a surprising twist

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Yasuo Kawada

The Yomiuri Shimbun This series discusses the present and future of washoku traditional Japanese cuisine. In this installment, The Yomiuri Shimbun interviews a renowned chef who discusses his commitment to the profession.

Yasuo Kawada / Owner of Tsuruko in Kanazawa

I usually purchase ingredients for dishes at Omicho Market, which is about five minutes on foot from my restaurant. When I was a child, I took for granted that the shop stalls at the market were filled with mouth-watering fish.

However, I learned that this actually isn’t that common when I lived in other places, and that Kanazawa has a wide variety of foods that are extremely fresh. We’re lucky to live here.

Nodoguro blackthroat sea perch tastes especially good in spring and autumn. In these seasons, I often serve nodoguro gohan [blackthroat sea perch on top of rice] in an earthenware pot to my customers.

I prepare nodoguro slices that are half raw and half cooked using the residual heat in the pot. From June, I recommend wild ayu sweetfish grilled with salt as it’s caught in the nearby Sai River.

One of our customers said: “I can’t really eat wild ayu in Tokyo. It’s easy for me to come Kanazawa to eat it.”

In winter, the buri yellowtail and crab taste great here in Kanazawa. As the ingredients have their own original tastes, for crab, I simply boil it to draw out the natural flavor for the customers’ enjoyment.

As the Hokuriku Shinkansen began [services to Kanazawa] three years ago, I want to meet the expectations of customers who have traveled a long distance by exploiting Kanazawa’s newfound accessibility.

At a ryotei traditional Japanese restaurant, chefs cannot see customers from the kitchen, kind of like fighting an opponent you can’t see. Customers visit my restaurant seeking a truly amazing culinary experience, so I definitely want to surprise them with my dishes that have a twist.

The season for Kaga-futokyuri big cucumber, which tastes like a lightly flavored melon, is beginning in Kanazawa. I scoop out the flesh of the cucumber and stuff it with various cooked vegetables, which is one of my trademark dishes. Customers gasp in surprise when they see it.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Nodoguro blackthroat sea perch on top of rice is prepared in an earthenware pot at Tsuruko in Kanazawa.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    A beef kuwayaki dish with cooked bamboo shoots and other vegetables

Since I was a child, I’ve had the feeling that I was born shackled to my family’s ryotei restaurant business.

When I described my dream of becoming a private eye in elementary school, a teacher said, “Aren’t you going to take over your family’s restaurant?”

I delivered traditional osechi meals to customers’ homes on New Year’s Eve in the snow when I was a junior high school student. I still remember the wistful feeling I had that night, because I wanted to watch [major star] Seiko Matsuda sing in a music awards program on television.

After working hard as an apprentice for about five or six years at Ajikitcho in Osaka, [Kitcho founder] Teiichi Yuki and my other superiors praised a dish I created. This gave me confidence to continue working as a chef.

During my apprenticeship in Osaka, I often visited a Japanese restaurant in Kyoto that my father knows very well, which inspired me to become who I am now.

The restaurant’s cook is a true master of Japanese cuisine, but he used a big portion of foie gras for a dish and cooked lobster with matsutake mushrooms. I can learn many things from those who cook original dishes.

I add my own touches to dishes, but it’s important to get the basics down. My favorite twist is to add truffle to dashimaki-tamago rolled omelets. But before doing so, a chef must first learn the proper techniques for making the dish. It’s important to first grasp the basics before adding your own twist.

Chefs in Kanazawa are serious and persistent. Every morning, they go to the market to find better ingredients and hone their skills to rival the competition.

Even in regional areas, chefs can create original dishes by making use of local ingredients and utilizing their skills.

— This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Fumiko Endo.

Kuwayaki grilled beef sirloin

Kuwayaki is a grilled meat dish paired with other ingredients and flavored with soy sauce and mirin. Kuwa is the Japanese word for hoe. The name kuwayaki derives from a meal prepared by farmers in which they caught wild birds while working in the fields, and cooked the birds on the flat part of their hoes.

Kawada uses soft beef loin for the dish. Beef round or fillet can also be used in place of loin. Cut the meat into five-centimeter cubes and season with salt and pepper. After 20 minutes or so, sprinkle flour over the meat cubes and grill evenly in a pan.

“By applying a flour coating, you can preserve the umami and the mellow flavor of the meat,” Kawada said.

Kawada prepares sauce that is 7 parts sake, 3.5 parts mirin and 1.5 parts strong soy sauce. Remove the meat from the pan before adding the sauce to the pan and boiling it on high heat. Place the meat back in the pan and let it briefly simmer. Finally, heat the meat with residual heat, which makes the meat tender and juicy.

■ Yasuo Kawada

Born in 1966, Kawada is the second-generation owner of the kaiseki ryori restaurant Tsuruko in Kanazawa. After seven years of apprenticeship at the ryotei traditional Japanese restaurant Ajikitcho in Osaka, he returned to Kanazawa. Kawada has also appeared on the TV cooking program “Ryori no Tetsujin” (Iron Chef). Tsuruko was given two stars by the Michelin Guide’s 2016 special edition for Toyama and Ishikawa prefectures. The course menu starts at ¥5,000 (excluding tax and service charges) at lunchtime on weekdays, and ¥15,000 (excluding tax and service charges) at night.

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